Over the past half century, the global demand for air travel has risen exponentially reaching levels of up to 9% per annum. Over 4 billion passengers flew in 2017 and approximately 56 million tons of freight were carried in 2017. The number of kilometers flown in 2017 added up to over 7,700 billion kilometers. This is expected to increase in 2019 and aircraft numbers to double over the next 20 years.
The global aviation industry presently enhances connectivity by linking over 220 countries with air transport services. Indeed the interconnectivity has been enhanced to a point where it doesn’t take more than two connections to reach over 80% of cities in the world. At the same time, the global aviation sector consumes significant amounts of hydrocarbons and is among the leading contributors to global climate change. Aviation is responsible for 12% of carbon dioxide emissions from all transport sources, compared to 74% from road transport. In 2018, the world’s airlines burnt 94 billion gallons of aviation fuel for domestic and international flights worldwide. Despite the sustainability challenges facing the sector, aviation industry still remains crucial to major aspects of social, economic, and environmental progress. Accordingly, the task that we must now face head-on is creating a cleaner, quieter, and smarter aviation sector.
In 2010, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) established the resolution A37-19 to guide their vision of achieving international aviation with a 2% annual fuel efficiency improvement up to the year 2050. The ICAO assembly also made the efforts and commitment to Carbon dioxide emissions at 2020 levels. ICAO continues to play a crucial role in providing assistance to members with the formulation of sustainability guidelines and climate change action plans for the aviation sector.
The impact of the aviation sector on global sustainability ranges from environmental to social impacts with impacts felt both at global and local scales. These impacts range from greenhouse gas emissions to climate change to noise in areas around airports. Despite contributing only 1-2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, airplanes inject these gases at higher altitudes hence resulting in a more impactful radiative forcing impact. This makes emissions from airlines to accelerate climate change faster than emissions emitted at the ground.
Noise, as mentioned above is still a significant problem especially in areas near airports and under flight paths. Airplane noise has been associated with health issues and impaired cognitive development of infants. Advancement in technology has resulted in significant reduction of engine noise, however, the growth in numbers of aircraft and flights still exposes people to noise levels above recommended values.
The above challenges are of great concern since the ever-increasing demand in the aviation sector dilutes the technological progress aimed at ameliorating these negative impacts. Consequently, consumption cancels out technological gain creative a negative net impact in terms of sustainability in the sector. Today there is a much clearer recognition of the need to create a sustainable future for the aviation industry, an effort that requires collective responsibility. So how can we put our efforts together to encourage a concrete action for a sustainable aviation sector?
Fuel source sustainability and the potential of alternative fuels has been showing progress in the aviation sector but a lot still needs to be done to transform this promise into a practical and sustainable reality. For decades, research programs have been on-going with proof-of-concept first-generation biofuels demonstration flights. The challenge at the moment is customer unwillingness to pay for such green alternatives. Another concern is also on the source of raw materials for the biofuels. Will the aviation sector consumes the arable land meant for food production to yield biofuels hence creating food insecurity? It is therefore mandatory for the airlines and fuel providers in the fuel supply chain to consider strategies for sustainable sourcing of raw materials. With the rapid development of alternative fuels, there is an urgent need for guidance and support as airlines attempt to make the shift to sustainable alternative aviation fuels.
The aviation sector has made a significant effort in technological enhancement to achieve fuel efficiency and emissions reduction. Despite this progress, many airlines still maintain a significant fleet of older and fuel-inefficient aircraft. This has been encouraged by the drop in oil price which has eliminated the need for airlines to invest in upgrading their fleets for fuel efficiency. Airlines should be encouraged to enhance customer awareness on the efficiency and sustainability of the planes they board so as to allow them to make sustainable choices when booking.
Achieving a sustainable aviation industry will require a multi-pronged approach and most importantly partnership with passengers to inspire them to make sustainable choices. At the same time, aircraft manufacturers, airlines, airport management authorities, regulatory agencies, airline employees, and residents near airports all need to be involved in this endeavor.